Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Thomas Cahill, Mysteries of the Middle Ages

An "In the Middle" first: a book has arrived from an editor at Doubleday. This editor claims to be a fan of the "In the Middle." He asks that I read the book and perhaps post a comment here.

I'm happy to announce its arrival. I'm happy to add that the book is handsome, well produced, beautifully illustrated. Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholoic Europe looks to be similar to another book by Thomas Cahill I've read, How the Irish Saved Civilization: a general introduction to a complicated set of questions, intended for the reader wo doesn't know all that much about the period. I'll post more on it as I read.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Wolves and Enemy Combatants, Humanism and the Inhuman

This may seem a little crazy, but I am going to try here to stitch together several recent, disparate posts and comment threads, mainly by sharing part of the conclusion to Michael E. Moore's essay, "Wolves, Outlaws and Enemy Combatants," which serves as one of the chapters in what is now titled Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages, ed. Eileen Joy, Myra Seaman, Kimberly Bell, and Mary Ramsey for Palgrave Macmillan's New Middle Ages series. [Go here for short precis of book, plus a chapter outline with brief chapter summaries.] Michael Moore, incidentally, is a historian of the Carolingian period, specializing especially in early law codes, and he is also a colleague of mine at Southern Illinois, and a good friend.

Although I suspect it is bad form to discuss these matters in public, we recently received the external reviewer's report for the volume and let's just say that many of us have some heavy revising to do, while at the same time, Palgrave is still committed to the book and it will likely be published in summer 2007. Nevertheless, I find myself continuing to be troubled and, I suppose, even a little depressed, at the notion, expressed by the reviewer [albeit with great politeness], that, perhaps, no one really wants to know what medieval scholars have to say about contemporary popular culture or current political issues, like the war on terror or the torture of enemy combatants at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Further, is it possible that some of the chapters that deal directly with policies of the Bush administration will be viewed as too polemical, and what does it mean to say, as I think the reviewer infers, that scholarship cannot [and should not] be polemical? In other words, scholars cannot choose sides, or appear to be choosing sides. And yet, I do not know how Steve Guthrie, another author in our book, could possibly have researched and written his chapter, "Torture, Inquisition, Medievalism, Reality, TV," without choosing sides. How can he not choose sides on the issue of the torture of prisoners by American military and intelligence personnel at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, and might he not have an ethical responsibility as a scholar of the Middle Ages but also as a citizen of the world to not allow himself to take refuge in the so-called "place apart" of the university? Is it not a kind of crime to claim to only be academically, but not personally or politically, invested in the "history" of torture? What would it mean to be a neutral "scholar" of torture?

We have a vast body of scholarship, I believe, that has amply demonstrated that medieval scholarship is never completely disinterested nor fully objective, nor does it ever stand "outside" of anything [chief examples include Norman Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages, Allen Frantzen's Desire for Origins, David Matthews's The Making of Middle English, and Stephanie Trigg's Congenal Souls]; at the same time, I believe there is some kind of general, often unspoken consensus within our field that our scholarship should always strive to be something that stands above politics and above personal bias. At the "same same same" time, we have scholars in our field wildly claiming that their work in, say, queer studies or feminist studies, is inherently politically liberatory [or "important"], while at the "same same same same" time, others point to that supposedly radically politically scholarship as "oh so politically lame" because its "real" social impact is too limited or nonexistent. Well, that about covers it, doesn't it? I think the fact that Bruce Holsinger is publishing his "pamphlet," Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism and the War on Terror, with Prickly Paradigm Press should tell us something about the lack of welcome within medieval studies publishing venues for what might be called an engaged, political medieval studies [and check out Prickly Paradigm Press, by the way--they're very cool and have actually preempted something I have been wanting to do with BABEL: create a venue for the "outside the box" scholarly "chapbook" or "novella"]. And there will be some in our field who won't read it for the very reason that it will not be appearing in the "usual" venue, whether as a longish article in Speculum or Exemplaria or as part of Minnesota's Medieval Cultures series.

When JJC plugged Bruce H.'s pamphlet, I was kind of amazed [and very happy, actually] that Holsinger has written such an essay, while at the same time I worried a little bit that it will pre-empt at least two of the chapters in our Palgrave book. Then again, in my mind, it can only be a good thing that several medieval studies scholars in their separate studies have ben thinking a lot about the Bush adminstration's use of what Holsinger terms the "neomedieval" in their assault on human rights, and also in their deepening of the divisions that exist within the international community. I would even go so far to say that, in three separate studies and in various places in the world, three medieval studies scholars [Holsinger, Moore, and Guthrie] allowed themselves to be troubled enough by the current state of affairs to devote their knowledge of premodern history and powers of critique [and yes, polemical critique] to what they see as a current crisis in contemporary human affairs [with the emphasis on human]. Although it may be, as Humphrey Bogart might have said, that all of their worrying and the writing that pours out of that worrying, might not amount to a hill of beans in this world. So this got me thinking, too [and again] about community and what we think we mean, as humanistic scholars, when we invoke the term. How are we, somehow, "with each other," as scholars [and against who?], and what other communities do we belong to that matter enough to choose sides with them? I don't quite know the answer, but I would like to offer here an excerpt from the conclusion to Michael Moore's essay as a possible beginning of a conversation on the subject:

from "Wolves, Outlaws and Enemy Combatants," by Michael Moore [an essay the chiefly deals with the White House legal memorandums on the torture of "enemy combatants" and also with the medieval practices of torture, exile and outlawry]
Humanism and the Inhuman

. . . . the question arises, whether any terrain still lies open for humanism, and whether a path can be discovered for the return of common law and the traditional concerns of politics. Tzvetan Todorov has suggested that to retrieve humanism, we should begin with the fact of community and our need for communal life. Developing certain principles and suggestions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Todorov hopes to develop a humanism based on lived experience, rather than ghostly abstractions: Rousseau discovered “a new conception of man as a being who needs others.” Todorov thus shows a reluctance to drink very deeply from the well of the Enlightenment. Alongside his renewal of humanism there is a revival and retrieval of classical philosophy, distant from the stilted vision of Leo Strauss: on the part of Pierre Hadot, Jean Vanier, and Comte-Sponville.

The hope of a renewed humanism can raise for us the theme of solidarity. Lasting friendships, the camaraderie of social groups, marriage, romantic partnerships and other binding solidarities seem to place philia or friendship at the heart of social order and the possibility of self-fulfillment. In his reading of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Thomas Aquinas argued that the virtue of friendship with oneself and with others is the basis of political concord, which is “found among virtuous men.” Such persons “behave in such a way that they are in accord with themselves and one another” in their mutual striving for virtue. Thus for Cicero, who was in accord with the Aristotelian view, political isolation was desolation.

In contrast to all such themes of solidarity is the outlaw: the person who undermines the community and departs from it in vengeful solitude. The late-modern state, alongside other powerful forces such as economic globalization, seems to promote social fission and individualization: “There is a nasty fly of impotence in the sweet ointment of the kind of freedom that has been shaped through the pressures of individualization.” Thus it could be said that the possibility of community now lies somewhere between the State and the outlaw, both of which labor against it. Nevertheless, it is an old and durable idea that community and culture can only develop when people can find security from outlawry.

In the famous prologue of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, known as the Archaeology, the characteristic forms of Greek civilization, peaceful life and self-fulfillment in a city-state, only became possible with the end of piracy. The pirate was the solitary enemy of peace, communication and culture. For centuries the symbol of the wolf has been assigned to such persons.

But what does exclusion from the legal world and humanity mean in the contemporary world? Since 2002, as has been discussed above, the White House has maintained that the President of the United States can exclude certain individuals from the realm of law and the circle of humanity, by declaring them to be “enemy combatants.” Such persons are held to have no rights and can be protected neither by national laws nor by international treaties such as the Geneva Convention. Viewed as comparable to wolves, such persons are imprisoned without hope of trial and are not protected from the use of torture. The enemy combatant is an outcast, unable to claim any law. The creation of this category was intended to strip, rather than to assign, a legal identity. The person captured and suspected of involvement in terrorism becomes an exile from every land, and every law. Traditional restraints against the maltreatment of prisoners can be put aside: he is treated as a demonic being, wearing a wolf’s head, outside the law. The ‘enemy combatant’ thus appears to be a revival of a pre-modern legal category, which has reappeared while judicial process is once again said to lie in the hand of the prince. The jurist Johannes Monachus (d. 1313) long ago reasoned that in the following terms: “everyone should be presumed innocent unless proven guilty” [Item quilibet presumitur innocens nisi probetur nocens], a principle that he believed must even bind the popes. According to Kenneth Pennington, the reasoning of Johannes Monachus gradually became widely acknowledged as a principle that bound and regulated the prince: “the jurists even decided that justice demanded that the devil himself must be given a hearing in court.”

These symbols and concepts serve to exclude dangerous enemies and serve to strengthen a sense of American community. We live in dangerous times, it is often said, and new rules apply. But the turn to new rules might itself lead to new times. As Quentin Skinner reminds us, notions of liberty and independence of the early modern period resisted the notion that the rights of the citizen should lie in the powerful hands of a government. This doctrine, inscribed in the founding documents of the United States, is compromised by recent changes in legal and political doctrine. The acceptance of legal doctrines stripped of the notion of humanity would represent a change in the American legal constellation. The Declaration of Independence expressed an ideal of humanity as the subject of rights: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. . .” It would be naïve to think that such ideals, developed in coffee shops and secret societies of the eighteenth century, at considerable personal risk to the thinkers, now reside safe by their inscription in an old document or because of their historical influence over the formation of a state which has changed considerably since then.

What has been introduced is the idea that rights are not endowed by the Creator but by currently existing political authorities, and then only if those regimes are judged to be viable, a viability to be determined by the executive power of the United States. The return of outlawry therefore has implications for a definition of the subject of rights and puts the idea of humanity into doubt. We are already asked to accept the principle that our civil liberties should yield to national security, and as Skinner rightly argues, this means accepting a certain level of servitude. It is extremely doubtful that the reduction of the sphere of rights will only affect the terrorist outlaw.

There has been a shift in the modern world, toward a situation in which the realm of positive law, the particular law of the state, has broken free from all comparison with higher laws, ethics, custom or common law. Thus according to Prodi, the modern State acts as if it its enactments and legal claims are not subject to any restraint or comparison with a higher or better law. This means that “human beings are now subjected to the absolute dictates of positive law and to the power and authority of the modern state.”

As long ago as 1995, in response to the growing absolutism of positive law, and the phenomenon of state intervention in the sphere of rights, Paul Ricoeur argued that we must reassert, in a new form, the inheritance of the Enlightenment, and thereby attempt to lay claim to “the rights of humanity, in the precise sense of this term—that is, the rights attached to human beings as human beings and not as members of some political community conceived of as the source of positive rights.” We are wrong to imagine that the State is the sole source of right, as an entity with a singular and unchallenged capacity to offer humanity and human rights.

The old idea of the wolfish-outlaw, as it makes a comeback, is relevant to the question of whether legal humanism is still possible in our time. In the view of the legal historian Francesco Calasso, the fourteenth-century jurist Bartolus of Sassoferato recognized the human and humane dimension of the law, and developed a legal humanism of a noble type: involving “not just discovery and exaltation of humankind but defense of them in thought and in action.” The assertion of the nobility and applicability of the ius commune as a canon of comparison for the law of particular States [ius proprium] and reference to a jurist like Bartolus on Roman Law, now seem hopelessly outmoded and bound by the intellectual conditions of the fourteenth century. Can we still assert a human-centered ideal of community, based on friendship, and binding solidarity among and between individuals? Friendship with oneself, viewed as part of the “fundamental constitution of humanity” might form the basis for a reawakening of the classical political demand for amity and justice.

With tremendous energy, the late-modern State projects its vision of an abridged humanity. The fact that “man is a wolf to man,” so horribly verified in the World Trade Center attack, has led to a vengeful retreat from old ideals of judicial due process. At the same time, we can point to a loosening of the bonds of local and friendly associations based on love and fellow-feeling, in favor of distant and false bonds based on hatred and fear: all in order to bind the primordial wolf.

The poet Goethe once declared that national hatred has a peculiar quality: “You will always find it strongest and most violent where there is the lowest degree of culture.” Displays of hatred have been common in recent years, thriving in a moral atmosphere of decline. One should highlight the possibility of friendship and the connections between friendship, liberty and joy. It is by no means easy to orient oneself during a period such as this one. I researched and pondered the theme of this essay while on retreat in the German monastery of Maria Laach (Monasterium Sanctae Mariae ad Lacum). Walking the paths lined with ancient beech trees or sitting in the quiet of the old liturgical library, I found that the topic troubled my thoughts. It seemed like a violation of the monks’ hospitality to study torture and terrorism inside the monastery walls, and yet those walls gave my reflections a hopeful and dignified frame.

We have been given the world as a setting in which to practice virtue and to attain self-knowledge; we are also bidden to study the world and the human tradition. Only this can open the prospect of contemplative happiness, “to which the whole of political life seems directed.” In periods of disturbance and change, personal constancy and discussions with like-minded friends become more important. If we can remain true to our friends: then “new paths will appear, enabling us to practice spirituality.”

Friday, October 27, 2006

It doesn't all taste like chicken

Michel Pastoureau observes that "for medieval society, in effect, the animal that was closest to man is not the bear (despite its outward appearance and its supposed similar method of coupling), even less so the monkey (an abominable figure of the devil), but in fact the pig." The notable resemblance between human and pig, apparent in their shared cunning and omnivorousness, is perhaps at its most disquieting in the similarity between human and porcine anatomy, for this internal similarity is precisely what would be on display at Christian meals. If our Christian eaters had done their homework--and I don't doubt that some of them did--they would have recalled medieval medical treatises, which often included an anagrammatic pun on corpus (body) and porcus (pig). More likely, by remembering the common disparagement of pigs in medieval moral treatises, they would have thought about the pig as a speculum of their own gluttony, but the medical pun might be recalled even in this context: Peter the Chanter's On Virtues and Vices (aka Verbum abbreviatum), for example, points out that "the pig has much in common with humans in its body, as is shown from the arrangement of its internal organs (sicut ex anatomia et divisione ejus patet)" (PL 205:337D-338A). Perhaps first noted as long ago as, of course, Aristotle, such observations have the support of modern science: see Wilson Pond and Harry J. Mersmann's Biology of the Domestic Pig (New York, 2001), which observes that "the digestive similarity and nutrient requirements of the pig and human are remarkably similar."

Pond and Mersmann don't talk about similarity of flesh, but if they're ever so inclined, they might ask a Japanese robot to write a chapter in their textbook's next edition:

At the end of the robot's left arm is an infrared spectrometer. When objects are placed up against the sensor, the robot fires off a beam of infrared light. The reflected light is then analyzed in real time to determine the object's chemical composition.
"All foods have a unique fingerprint," Shimazu said. "The robot uses that data to identify what it is inspecting right there on the spot."
When it has identified a wine, the robot speaks up in a childlike voice. It names the brand and adds a comment or two on the taste, such as whether it is a buttery chardonnay or a full-bodied shiraz, and what kind of foods might go well on the side...
When a reporter's hand was placed against the robot's taste sensor, it was identified as prosciutto. A cameraman was mistaken for bacon.
All I have to say right now is: no kidding.


(hat-tip: Majikthise) (thanks to this ebay auction for the image. You've a day left if you want to own it yourself)

Claudine Fabre-Vassas The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians, and the Pig (trans. Carol Volk, New York, 1997) is essential. Michel Pastoureau’s several discussions of pigs can be found in: "Quel est le roi des animaux?" in Le monde animal et ses représentations au Moyen-Age (XIe-XVe siècles) (Toulouse, 1985); “L’homme et le porc: une histoire symbolique,” in Couleurs, images, symboles: études d'histoire et d'anthropologie (Paris: Léopard d'Or, 1989); "Histoire d'une mort infâme: le fils du roi de France tué par un cochon (1131)," Bulletin de la société nationale des antiquaires de France (1992): 174-76; "L'animal et l'historian du Moyen Âge." in L'animal exemplaire au Moyen Âge (Ve - Xve Siècle), ed Jacques Berlioz and Marie Anne Polo de Beaulieu (Rennes, 1999), 13-28; "La chasse au sanglier: histoire d'une dévalorisation (IVe-XIV siècle)," in La chasse au Moyen Age: société, traités, symboles, ed. Agostino Paravicini Bagliani and Baudouin van den Abeele, (Florence, 2000), 7-23; and "Une justice exemplaire: les procès intentés aux animaux (XIIe - XVIe s.)," Cahiers du Léopard d'or 9 (2000), 173-200. He reprints some of the above material in Les animaux célèbres, (Paris: Bonneton, 2001) and Une histoire symbolique du moyen âge occidental,(Paris: Seuil, 2004).

Narcissism Corner: if you're still a bit music-obsessed, listen to most or all of music through your computers, and are a medievalist, perhaps you'd care to join up with me here.

(best wishes, Eileen. Hope you're able to come back soon)

On behalf of Eileen

Eileen Joy has asked that I let blog readers know she is on a brief hiatus due to a family matter. She will retun early next week.

Cosmically speaking, it wouldn't be a bad idea for readers to send some good astral vibrations her way.

Briefly noted

Steve Muhlberger on Walter Goffart's Barbarian Tides and the stubborn persistence of barbarian invasion fantasies.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism and the War on Terror

Click on the image below for an advance preview of the catalog copy of Bruce Holsinger's forthcoming book.

Rethinking the academic job search

Financial and structural constraints conspire to make it difficult to tamper much with the standard English department job search: appointing a hiring committee, placing an MLA ad, sorting through applications and requesting additional materials, interviewing ten or so candidates at a convention hotel, bringing three to campus, hiring one. It is a grueling effort and a financial burden for all involved. It is especially unpleasant to be a candidate caught in the process's machinery, since statistically it produces copious rejection and offers small chance of reward.

It's not a great system, but it seems to me that -- absent a huge stockpile of cash -- there isn't a whole lot that can be done by any single department of English to change its basic structure. If there is, I would dearly like to hear about it.

One practical step that a department can take is to do some good, basic research as a prelude to the search. Too often job searches proceed with a vague notion that excellence will rise to the top. All a faculty need do is advertise a period- or genre-oriented slot ("medievalist" "postcolonial studies" "American novel" "poet"), sift the applications, and voila: the best candidate. The problem is, though, that the expert on the American novel doesn't necessarily know much about the changing contours of, say, contemporary medieval studies. Such gaps cause awkward conversations with job candidates, who get viewed as an alien species; at its worst such a gap can foster a general lack of focus in the search.

For the past few years my department has embarked on a process of self-education as the search begins. We have christened the main event the "Futures of the Field" symposium. This panel presentation and discussion seek to map out some of the most exciting research being conducted in the field in which we are about to make a hire. Typically we invite three scholars at three different stages in their careers. They present on both their own work and on what they see as being important work by other scholars. A conversation that includes the faculty of the English Department, interested faculty from other departments and nearby institutions, graduate and undergraduate students follows. A reception fosters some informal chat. That evening the hiring committee takes the panelists to dinner to continue the dialogue.

So far we have had symposia directed towards the medieval/early modern divide and Latino/a studies. Both were successful in investing the whole of the faculty in the search process, and in yielding outstanding hires. On Friday comes our third iteration of the event, on medieval studies. Information on panelists is below. All are welcome to attend.

Please join the English Department of the George Washington University for our third Futures of the Field symposium, this time dedicated to the most interesting work being done in medieval studies.

The event takes place on Friday October 27 at 2 PM in Marvin Center (800 21st St NW) room 403. Light refreshments will be served.

Our speakers are:

Bruce Wood Holsinger, Professor of English and Music, University of Virginia. Professor Holsinger is the author of two well regarded books: Music, Body and Desire in Medieval Culture and The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory. His newest book Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror is forthcoming from Prickly Paradigm Press. Among the many topics he has published on are postcolonial and subaltern studies; queer theory; the Marxist premodern; continental philosophy; race; pedagogy and violence; music.

Kellie Robertson, Director of the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program and Assistant Professor of English and Women's Studies, University of Pittsburgh. Professor Robertson is the author of The Laborer's Two Bodies: Labor and the 'Work' of the Text in Medieval Britain and the co-editor of The Middle Ages at Work: Practicing Labor in Late Medieval England. She has published widely on labor; postcolonial theory; gender; historiography. Her book in progress is entitled The Reformation of the Body: Reading Practices and Bodily decorum in Medieval and Early Modern Britain.

Kofi Omoniyi Sylvanus Campbell, Assistant Professor of English, Wilfrid Laurier University. Professor Campbell is the author of Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic: From Pre- to Postcolonial. He has also written on contemporary Caribbean literature, medieval nationalism and colonialism, and queer Caribbean identities.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Quotation of the day: Monika Otter

I am rereading for my graduate seminar Monika Otter's Inventiones, one of those rare books that seems deeper with each working through. I'd also describe it as prescient: far ahead of the field when it was published in 1996. Here are some lines on the function of otherworldly marvels in the twelfth-century historians William of Malmesbury and William of Newburgh (was it required to be named William to write in the twelfth century?):
What comes between the text and the res gesta is, in short, an act of narration ... figured as 'magic.' The historical world to be narrated is not immediately accessible -- in part because it is past ... in part because no configuration of facts, events, raw materials is thus accessible; historia is always narratio rerum gestarum, an instrument to apprehend the res gestae, which is clearly differentiated from the res gestae themselves. The material to be apprehended is and remains foreign and intractable: this is the uneasy insight dramatized by the otherwise 'pointless' otherworld anecdotes.

I find myself chewing over these lines as if I were an Ouroboros and they were my caudal appendage (to steal an awkward metaphor from the comments section). Actually, what I like about the passage is that it resists the temptation to turn the medieval historian into yet another example of "Phosphor Reading By His Own Light" (stealing Wallace Stevens now). Rather, Otter pushes twelfth-century writers into realms they seem to "uneasily" but vividly perceive, spaces where history as an impossible art is on magnificent display.

[Addendum 10/24: on re-reading my post about re-reading Otter, I see that I didn't point out something I disagree with in her book. Otter describes Wiliam of Malmesbury as ultimately trapped within his own vision of historical inadequacy: mournfully aware of the deadness of the past, its irretrievabilty. William of Newburgh she allows a more unsettled relation to a past that can't be so drained of life. I'd argue that both writers are creatively enagaged artists of history, who use their materials to revivify the past in unexpected, culturally impure, and temporally messy ways. See, for example, this post on Animal innovation in William of Malmesbury.]

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Human Beings Will Not Split Into Two Groups, Because We Will Run Out of Water First [or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Irrelevance]

Figure 1. Cellular Autophagy

In an earlier post, "Someone get a medievalist! Here Come the Morlocks!", Emile B. wrote, in relation to an ongoing discussion there [yet again!] on whether or not medieval studies can ever, really be ethical or political [or, let's say, whether or not medieval studies can really intervene, in an engaged way, with real-world social and political crises]:
It's not the performing of the ethical or the dislodging of prejudices that are problematic; it's rather the context in which these activities are undertaken that is troublesome. . . .

By "context," I mean not only the institution(s) but also the existential milieu(x), so that, in place of what Tillich calls "courage to be," critical medieval studies has degenerated into homogenous self-talk in the form of an auto-cannibalism consuming not only ideas and ever more words but possible futures, with all turned into one fecal paste. Mind you, not that I would be one to automatically dismiss fecal art.
As readers of this blog already know, BABEL's poet-jester Nelljean Rice, in her somewhat humorous response to our recent roundtable sessions on "premodern to modern humanisms," raised this very point regarding what might be called the humanities' current state of auto-cannibalism. In fact, she practically encourages the notion, perhaps as a form of honesty, or at least as an implicit acknowledgement that part of what makes us human [and keeps us alive] is that we--both literally and figuratively--eat our own shit, and therefore, as she puts it, are also always "talking through mouthfuls of shit." And all this while, as Michael Calabrese eloquently states, life sometimes has a way of "cutting through" theory. But why do we always oppose "life" to "theory," especially when, it seems to me, so much of being human has to do with talking, talking, and more talking?

But this also raises for me [again] the specter of the hopeless chasm that supposedly marks off “life” from “what we do” [as literary scholars-philosophers] and “the real world” from the university [which is supposedly set apart and where, in the humanities at least, the main objective is in creating discourses about discourses of which the real world has no real need]. It’s just too convenient of a binary to evoke again and again—I mean, it’s all “life,” isn’t it, in one form or another? It’s all “real,” isn’t it? But it does, as Emile B. has pointed out numerous times, definitely have to do with context. Whatever it is you are doing in and with your intellectual work, where are you doing it and for whom or what purpose? These questions matter if you want to believe that your work should matter—to someone, somewhere, for some reason that might have something to do with the improvement of this thing we call “real life.”

It may be, though, that we should also embrace our irrelevance—all the ways in which the humanities have been decentered within the contemporary university, but also all the ways in which our so-called attention to the political dimensions of humanistsic subjects [whether literary texts or paintings, historical documents or symphonies] is only just that: an attention or regard, and not, in and of itself a political or ethical action that might, say, change or save or protect an actual human life. To call attention to the anti-Semitism of Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale,” or to the anti-Muslim perspective of “The Song of Roland,” or to all the ways in which history is manipulated by the victors—it’s altogether too easy, isn’t it, and even obvious? But that doesn’t mean this work shouldn’t be done—in teaching and in scholarship—only that we should be careful about the broad claims we might want to make for this work’s social or political impact beyond the setting of the university or all of the quiet places in which a scholar’s work is read and ruminated, here and there, places that number in the double digits [haha], unless that scholar is an Edward Said or Slavoj Zizek, but even then, would their readership rival all the fans who were crowded into the St. Louis Cardinals baseball stadium last night? But I like to think, too, that the humanities might matter most at the exact moment they are deemed “dead”—this is the moment at which we could reinvent ourselves as a “stealth humanism” that comes up from under, and never again “lectures” from above, where we recognize that we are guerilla artist-ethicists and not practitioners of a so-called “rational” science or philosophy.

Of course, history matters, and I think it would be unwise and unthrifty to rehash here and now all the reasons why it matters, to those who are dead but also living, although we might ponder all of the ways in which this becomes yet another academic argument that no one is really listening to. The biggest case in point [for me, anyway] on this subject is the Bush administration’s handling of so-called enemy combatant prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. A knowledge of the history of the rhetoric and practice of torture, from the classical period to Algeria, simply doesn’t factor in to their deliberations, actual practices, and after-the-fact justifications. They are not “humanists,” in the sense that they have likely not read and studied something like Sartre’s preface to Henri Alleg’s La Question, where he wrote that, “The purpose of torture is not only to make a person talk, but to make him betray others. The victim must turn himself by his screams and by his submission into a lower animal, in the eyes of all and in his own eyes. His betrayal must destroy him and take away his human dignity. He who gives way under questioning is not only constrained from talking again, but is given a new status, that of a sub-man.” Further, the aim of torture “is to force from one tongue, amid its screams and its vomiting up of blood, the secret of everything. Senseless violence: whether the victim talks or whether he dies under his agony, the secret that he cannot tell is always somewhere else and out of reach. It is the executioner who becomes Sisyphus. If he puts the question at all, he will have to continue forever.” The Bush administration likely could not even begin to process the existential horror of this insight. And for all of Bush’s posturing that he recently read Camus’s The Stranger, we know that even if he is really reading it, he is not understanding it, because he is not the good student in that sense, and he has no good teachers. In the meantime, in all the prison cells, men are literally losing their minds.

The Bush administration is also not likely going to watch Michael Haneke’s recent film Cache, starring Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil, which is a kind of moral parable about the ways in which Algeria remains in the French consciousness as a kind of moral stain and also as a barely repressed and unconfronted nightmare of the past. The main character, George, is, aptly enough, a literary critic who has devoted his life to reading books and conducting a public television talk show about books and writers. His life is apparently placid and untroubled, although he is so self-involved [or buried in his books or just distracted] he does not realize his wife is having an affair, but that, cleverly enough, is not what the movie is really about. It is about his inability and unwillingness to confront the past and the part he played, even just as a child, in France’s crimes against the Arab Algerians. Although the audience discovers what this is and even has to witness the horror of its lasting psychic effects in the suicide of one of the characters [who slits his throat in front of George], fittingly, both for the arc of the movie’s narrative, the truth of the present’s negation of the past [and therefore, of history], and the fact of the utter uselessness of literature as anything other than a panacea or hiding place, the movie simply ends with George taking a sleeping pill, drawing the curtains in his bedroom, and going to sleep. No one ever really learns anything that can’t also be willfully forgotten and people continue to suffer.

What’s a medievalist to do? Perhaps acknowledge the fact that our work can never really be political in the sense that it could affect the decision of a legislature or a president or a populace, and also, perhaps, commit ourselves to the idea that we are not so much the custodians of a certain history as we are the chief worriers of historical memory who, in our recognition and resulting anxiety that we cannot do enough justice to the past—which is always too unfinished and not mourned enough—undertake a labor of creatively staged encounters with that past [mainly in writing] in order to reenact, over and over again, what Louise Fradenburg has termed the ethical crisis that always attends mourning: It is the same crisis “that attends creation in general, including the production of art, of the aestheticized as well as mnemomic signifier.” Further,
“It is when we are most anxious to preserve the past that we know we have not done justice and cannot properly ‘speak of them.’ To speak of them seems to set aside their set-apartness. Yet we cannot not speak of them, and also they cannot remain other to us, in part because of the mnemomic imperative of signification itself. We cannot not change them, because they do live on in us, and yet they cannot be changed, certainly their deadness cannot be changed, the life they lead now is not the life they once led. And yet they could not have led either life without the very vicissitudes of the signifier that produce this paradoxicality in the first place. The deadly or inhuman limit that is the Other, the unconscious, inhabits the living subject. We live in relation to the inanimacy of the signifier, and that is what we memorialize.” (Sacrifice Your Love: Psychoanalysis, Historicism, Chaucer, pp. 250-51)
As to paradox, it may be that part of our job is also to always be calling attention to it, not only because it is a spur to rethinking history, past and present, but also because it is a spur to lift ourselves out of our own complacency and disciplinary turgidity, which is everywhere around us. For myself, this past week, it has meant thinking about Stephanie Trigg’s cancer [the self-memorizing of which on her blog some will surely turn away from as “not academic” or “too personal for the chosen genre”], while also thinking about my own current intellectual labors over embodiment and Anglo-Saxon souls, the so-called end [or marginalization] of the humanities in the contemporary university, the impossibility, for all my bellowing to the contrary, that my work on Old English poetry could ever be truly, socially “relevant,” and the facts, stated in this week’s New Yorker, that “Nearly half the people in the world don’t have the kind of clean water and sanitation services that were available two thousand years ago to the citizens of ancient Rome” and that “Half of the hospital beds on earth are occupied by people with an easily preventable waterborne disease” (Michael Specter, “The Last Drop,” The New Yorker 23 Oct. 2006: 63). In what way are all of these things connected, or how do they cancel each other out? How, like W.G. Sebald [for me a kind of preeminent historian-as-artist], might I begin to “adhere to an exact historical perspective, in patiently engraving and linking together apparently disparate things in the manner of a still-life”? Ours is the humanistic labor against all of the falling asleep that is everywhere around us. It is also about consolation in the present, for the present, for ourselves. As to the future, it may never arrive.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Mickey's dark side, or, Euro-Disney Trash

Karl has an interesting post below this piece of fluff; don't miss it. But I can't resist throwing the following onto the blog:
Naughty Mickey Mouse Nettles Walt Disney

After Mickey Mouse was seen in an online video spanking the chipmunks Chip and Dale before joining Minnie Mouse and the Snowman in a simulated threesome, the Walt Disney Company issued an outraged protest that prompted the management of Disneyland Paris to begin an investigation, Agence France-Presse reported. The management of Euro Disney termed the film, shot by Disneyland workers on the grounds of the theme park and featuring costumed cartoon characters, “unacceptable and unforgivable” and pledged to find and punish those responsible.

Compare to the erotic animals, the animal invention, and the surprising sexuality of cute but lewd gnomes that have been discussed here already.

And now the Cohens are off on their annual pilgrimage to the Eastern Shore. Blue ocean, copious junk food, wild ponies in Assateague, Temple of Dragons mini golf and some serious time together as a family ... and no internet access. My own blogging resumes next week, and meanwhile you are in the capable hands of the unholier members of the In the Middle trinity.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Someone get a medievalist! Here Come the Morlocks!

A few quick spurs to conversation, as that's all I have in me right now. Spurs, that is.

Get ready! You may have run across a recent assertion by Oliver Curry of the London School of Economics that some 100,000 years from now the human species will diverge into two species: one tawny-hued, beautiful so long as you go in for the standards of Western fashion magazines, tall, and deep-voiced (if men); the other will be squat, hairy, unhealthy, and, like Mike Tyson, will possess unnervingly squeaky voices. The taller people will have tenure; the squat people will be happy to grade unending piles of ungrammatical personal essays about shopping and whatever is the future's equivalent of beer bonging. You get the picture.

Ewok bonging, maybe.

So far as I can determine, Curry's science is risibly bad. You might look here, or here, or here, or here, or, well, here.

I thank the scientists for kneecapping Curry's hypothesis so quickly, but I wonder if Curry would even have proposed his fantastical future had he listened to the medievalists. Why not throw ourselves in the breach? Those of us who know our chivalric narrative or Paul Freedman are all too familiar with long-limbed, barrel-chested, flaxen- haired Adonises whose bodies incarnate the justness of their rule over peasants whose bodies, by contrast, more often than not hideously burst at the seams with animal features. Granted, some of these beautiful men were huge and green (SGGHulk? G. C., can you read me?), and some of the squat untermenschen were actually, well, also quite large:

The Carle the knyghttus can beholde,
Wytt a stout vesage and a bolde.
He semyd a dredfull man:
Wytt chekus longe and vesage brade;
Cambur nose and all ful made;
Betwyne his browus a large spane;
Hys moghth moche, his berd graye;
Over his brest his lockus lay
As brod as anny fane;
Betwen his schuldors, whos ryght can rede,
He was two tayllors yardus a brede.

Now I may be selling our profession a bit short here, but it seems we can do at least this: if a medievalist had mapped out the familiar discursive boundaries for Curry by loading him down with Yvain and Aucassin et Nicolette and, why not, The Time Machine, Curry might have kept his ideas at the pub, where they belonged. My students this semester, may they be touched by his noodly appendage, have often been stopped short by the idea that Homer and Chaucer--or the Franklin--simply didn't make up the stories they told. The plots might not be only theirs, but the words are, mostly, so that's where we apply our critical pressure. I've eased them out of their convictions of the supreme value of originality by pairing Homer with Virgil and Virgil with the Eneas and the Franklin with Marie de France and letting them know that similar narratives reward similar heuristics. And, by the end of semester, they'll at least know how to cow some of these standard narratives with suspicious looks and, I trust, proper comma usage. Would that Curry had also taken my class!

I was urged to this post, in part, by reading Michael Calabrese's Performing the Prioress: 'Conscience' and Responsibility in Studies of Chaucer's Prioress's Tale. While I can't offer any kind of detailed critique--I skimmed the article today right before teaching the Prioress in the hopes of jarring my pedagogy in a different direction--I can say that it intersected nicely with some of the longstanding debates about ethics we've had on this blog. You might want to read it yourself, but now, for your debating pleasure, I quote:

In this complex, volatile context of edu-business, medievalists must monitor their ethical projects in relation to the evolving curricular imperatives that are redefining the university's relationship to twenty-first-century culture. As we negotiate this relationship we should consider, ultimately, an Arnoldian disinterestedness from contemporary issues of race, class, and gender for fear that if we too closely link the medieval and the modern in relation to these politics, we will be packaging our profession for the architects of the corporate university who will have figured out, finally, what it is that "we do" and will blithely assimilate it to the university of excellence, an institution interested in producing students just politically sensitive enough to facilitate the smooth operation of global capitalism as it forges its "solutions for a small planet.

To study hatreds, violences, and injustices with the announced purpose of creating a "positive response" to a world that licenses "repression and violence" is to conduct a politics of affect, dangerous not so much in its utopianism as in its re-definition of literary studies, a redefinition that the corporate university of the twenty-first century, operating like a state-run HMO, will happily assimilate into its own economic and social ends. A humanities that displays civic utility is, as Plato remarked long ago, good for the state. Yet where many critics today see Plato to be a utopian and even (as Bertrand Russell saw him) a fascist, these same critics do not see the dangers to academic freedom that political criticism can spawn.

Surely my critical machine isn't helping the fascists by stopping future Curries in their tracks. Narrative analysis never hurt anyone, but it seems, maybe, there's a danger in doing too much ethical performance and directed dislodging of prejudices. Thoughts?

Writing, Race and Nation

This semester I've been teaching a graduate seminar with the above title. The course description runs as follows:
This seminar will explore what could be called "the archipelago of England." The texts examined reveal how a united, anglophone kingdom emerged in the Middle Ages and dominated the entirety of the isle of which it was but a single part. This seemingly homogenous nation was haunted by the multicultural and polyglot Britain it supposedly superseded. Primary sources are medieval, and are especially chosen to defeat contemporary expectations about the biology of race and the ontology of nations. They will also provide useful historical grounding for students working on more contemporary projects. Special emphasis will be paid to the hard work of producing "England" (and the many points at which failure loomed); the colonization of the Celtic Fringe in its racializing effects; the paradoxes of anti-Semitism; and the complex role of religion and other transnational identifications in solidifying recalcitrant nationalisms.

My students are bright and the readings -- though tough for many of them -- have sparked some bracing discussions.

So far my favorite new (to me) reading has been Orkeyinga Saga. This thirteenth-century text, composed in Iceland, attempts to imagine a world without race. There is a great scene towards the beginning when Hrolfr, the "Rollo" who founded the Normans, is conveniently absented from a discussion of Orkney's future because, it seems, that future cannot have some definitive collective identity attached to it. The first earl of Orkney is therefore the slave-born, truculent Einar. The people of Orkney and their earls are all about provisional, shifting, and transnational identifications. There isn't much of what William Chester Jordan called the "intense localism" of many medieval texts, perhaps because these islands are so caught up in the shifting politics of the Hebrides, Denmark, Norway, England, Ireland, Wales.

I'm attempting in this class to pair our medieval discussions with some postcolonial theorizing of island identities; most of this theory is, naturally enough, drawn from the study of the Caribbean. That insular impulse meant that Orkeyinga Saga was read alongside José F. Buscaglia-Salgado's Undoing Empire: Race and Nation in the Mulatto Caribbean, a book of which I'm very fond. Buscaglia-Salgado's work is all about the spaces between racial identities. His attempt to think "in less racially bipolar terms" resonated well with a medieval saga that ignores the grandiose claims of any communal designation that proclaims itself historically stable, trading such fantasies for ad hoc and mutable alliances.

Or, to return to those lines from King Lear we were arguing over some time ago, "Now gods stand up for bastards!"

My syllabus is below, for anyone who is interested. Missing from it are my own ad hoc introductions -- e.g. we also looked closely at texts like the AAA Statement on Race and some medical work on race's (non)existence.

Schedule of Readings

Sept. 5 English Literature, British History
R. R. Davies, The British Isles 1100-1500: "In Praise of British History"
Antonio Benitez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective: "From Columbus's machine to the sugar-making machine"

Sept. 12 The Making of Race
*Gayle Wald, Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture: "Introduction: Race, Passing, and Cultural Representation"
Thomas Hahn, "The Difference the Middle Ages Makes"; Robert Bartlett, "Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity"; William Chester Jordan, "Why 'Race'?" (all these essays are found in Journal of Medieval and early Modern Studies 31.1 [20001], available via Project MUSE)

Sept. 19 Insular Spaces
Adomnan of Iona, Life of Saint Columba
*Kofi Omoniyi Sylvanus Campbell, Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic: "Introduction: The Postcolonial Middle Ages?"; Chapter One (all); Chapter Four: "Closing the Black Atlantic Circle"; "Conclusion"
*Kathy Lavezzo, Angels on the Edge of the World: "Introduction: Modern Motherland and Ancient Otherworld"

Sept. 26 Birth of a Nation [optional 3 page paper due]
Age of Bede: "Life of Cuthbert," "Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow," "Voyage of St Brendan"
Nicholas Howe, "Rome: Capital of Anglo-Saxon England" (Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34 [2004], available via PROJECT MUSE)
Eileen Joy, "Anglo-Saxons Were Apartheid Racists!"

Oct. 3 Alfred and the Idea of Nation
Alfred the Great: Asser, The Life of King Alfred; "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle"; "From the translation of Gregory's Pastoral Care"; "Extracts from the Laws of King Alfred"; The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum"
*Patrick Geary, The Myth of Nations: "New Barbarians and New Romans"
*Kathleen Davis, "National Writing in the Ninth Century" (Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 28 [1998] 611-37)

Oct. 10 Archipelago and Island
Orkeyinga Saga
*José F. Buscaglia-Salgado, Undoing Empire: Race and Nation in the Mulatto Caribbean: "Introduction" "Bartolomé de Las Casas at the End of Time"

Oct. 17 We Have Never Been Precolonial
Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul
Gildas, The Ruin of Britain [any version or Medieval Sourcebook download: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/gildas-full.html]
*Peter S. Wells, The Barbarians Speak: How the Conquered peoples Shaped Roman Europe: "Natives and Romans" "Conclusion"

Oct. 24 Insular Itineraries
Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales and Description of Wales
*Monika Otter, Inventiones: "Underground Treasures: The 'Other Worlds' of William of Malmesbury, William of Newburgh and Walter Map" and "Quicksands: Gerald of Wales on Reading"

Oct. 31 Seven page "problem" paper and annotated bibliography due

Nov. 7 Translation and Transformation
Marie de France, Lais
*from Roger Sherman Loomis, Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance

Nov. 14 Anglicization
Middle English Breton Lais: "Sir Orfeo" "Sir Degaré" "Sir Launfal" "Sir Gowther"
*R. R. Davies, The First English Empire: Power and Identities in the British Isles 1093-1343: "'Sweet Civility' and 'Barbarous Rudeness'" "The Anglicization of the British Isles"

Nov. 21 Arthur, King of Britain England
Wace and Laymon, Arthurian Chronicles
*Laurie Finke and Martin Shichtman, King Arthur and the Myth of History: "The Romance of Empire: Vernacular History and the Structuration of Power" and "Discontinuous Time: History in the Eyes of Its Losers"

Nov. 28 Nation, Cosmos and Polis
John Mandeville, Travels
Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic: "Eye on the World: Mandeville's Pleasure Zones; or, Cartography, Anthropology, and Medieval Travel Romance"

Dec. 5 Project Presentations

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Stephanie Trigg

If you are not reading Stephanie Trigg's extraordinary blog, you ought to be. The last two posts have been about her diagnosis with cancer and horizons. The traveller sets forth is medieval-inflected (hear the Auerbach in there?) and quite moving.

It's official: King Arthur more influential than Barbie or the Ugly Duckling

According to the newly released list of 101 Most Influential People Who Have Never Been Born, King Arthur is #3 -- edged out, I am sad to say, by the Marlboro Man and Big Brother.

For the complete list, look here. Personally I was a little relieved not to see Eileen Joy's name on the list, since I cannot as yet prove her reality.

(thanks to the Spouse for this one)

One Day in History

Make history with us on 17 October by taking part in the biggest blog in history.

'One Day in History' is a one off opportunity for you to join in a mass blog for the national record. We want as many people as possible to record a 'blog' diary which will be stored by the British Library as a historical record of our national life.

Write your diary here reflecting on how history itself impacted on your day - whether it just commuting through an historic environment, discussing family history or watching repeats on TV.

(courtesy of N50)

Ouroboros and In the Middle

Longtime readers of this blog will know that at a certain point a dragonish creature appeared as its mascot. This German woodcut isn't very medieval, but it was the best representation of Ouroboros that I could turn up via a Google image search. Why did I desire ouroboros, you ask? I'm glad you are so curious; that trait will serve you well. What creature can symbolize an infinitity of mediality better than a serpent that bites its own tail and becomes an eternal circle?

So thank you, Nelljean Rice, for your words on Ouroborosity and the endbeginning that is the human. I may just swipe the image Eileen used to illustrate your words, and I will certainly keep them in mind as I think about the human for the Kalamazoo panel in the spring.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Of the Ouroboros, Autophagia and 9/11

Well, the BABEL Working Group is back from Oxford, MS and boy are we tired, hung over, and generally still giddy from the fumes of bourbon. Within the week, I will be posting on BABEL's website the full texts of all the remarks presented on our "premodern to modern humanisms" roundtable session at the 32nd Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association, but in the meantime, I thought I would post here the final, closing remarks of our second respondent, Nelljean Rice, BABEL's poet-jester. Some of the statements below will be overly allusive because they refer to remarks made by other presenters, but in general, I think they will give us some interesting food for thought here at In The Middle, and I hope they will whet everyone's curiosity for the "more-to-come":

Of the Ouroboros, Autophagia and 9/11, by Nelljean Rice


These lines by T.S. Eliot occur in “East Coker,” number two of his Four Quartets. They say much about our panel’s remarks today in our search for elusive humanity. Panelists have found the humane in a “foodie,” a “blood-ie,” a pathogen, a parrot, and on the planet of the apes. Yet when I read the title of this year’s SEMA conference ["Beginnings and Endings"], all I can think of is a worm—a big worm, granted—one of mythology’s oldest and biggest: the ouroboros. “East Coker’s” famous first line, “In my beginning is my end” conjures the ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail, slaying itself, bringing itself back to life, fertilizing itself, and giving birth to itself, endlessly redeeming. Plato describes this creature as the first living thing in the universe, perfect in its form and function. He even calls it a man, a perfect man who supplies himself with all his needs. Except language. Because, if Ouroboros could talk, it’d be talking through a mouthful of shit. Well, we won’t follow up on that analogy for the BABEL proceedings.

What if we take the serpent as an analogy for language? Or for life, or for the universe? Then we enter the realm of cognitive science in which an organism is a unit to the extent that its conduct results in the maintenance of its basic circularity (Maturana & Varela, “Autopoesis and Cognition: Realization of the Living”). Or, as Eileen Joy says, where “the body is the prison of the body.” And where we all eat our words. That’s all we’ll be able to eat if Ouroboros, the WordPress commentary weblog, is correct in its description of autophagy, which scientists such as Alessio Donati and Ettore Bergamini deem essential for good health.

ON THE BENEFITS OF EATING ONESELF (In my end is my beginning)

Cells turn over old proteins and clean up cellular detritus to keep themselves healthy. What is not-self degrading is dying, so autophagy is the only defense against the vulnerability to age-related diseases like cancer. Autophagy is stimulated by extreme dietary restrictions. When we get old, this process slows down, creating the potential for a “garbage catastrophe” (Alexei Terman). Ouroboros the serpent is us, eating ourselves to stay alive, sucking up all our crap and cleaning it into health. Or not.


I’ve recently read “Varieties of Imagination and Nothingness in the Global Village” by John H. Simpson (Canadian Journal of Sociology) in which he ponders the rush to aesthetic reactions to 9/11. He quotes Karlheinz Stockhausen, a German avant-garde composer, who states that the attack on the World Trade Center was the most amazing work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos, rehearsed for years and years, and then executed (pardon the pun) with the artists’ death. Stockhausen continues that the destruction of the twin towers is the kind of “going beyond the limits of human existence” to which all artists aspire. This “work of art” left detritus—a lot of it human, but all so melded together by chaotic force that it’s truly cyborgian, man and machine fossilized by a “big bang.” And where is it? It’s been dumped in sites all over New York—the outskirts of JFK, scrap yards, and, ironically, at the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. On this day, barely a month after the 5th anniversary of 9/11, I’d like to propose a memento mori in the medieval tradition, to show our humanity—let’s gather all that broken cyborg stuff and pile it up as high as it can go on the site of the towers. We’ll call it the Cosmic Ouroboros, we’ll light fires, eat organ meats, drink blood, let our fur grow, and, like Robert Olen Butler’s parrot, say, “Holy Shit. It’s You.”

Sunday morning, 8:30

Kid #1 is dressed in his Grim Reaper robe from last Halloween. He brandishes the "beginner's hazelwood wand" that he purchased at the Maryland Renaissance Festival and spent Saturday carving runes onto. Kid #2 is dressed in her red ballet tutu and pink fairy wings. She carries a wand witha big star on its tip. Little plastic gems keep breaking from its surface.

The two of them are having (what else?) a wand battle. My money is on the Grim Reaper, but the Ballet Fairy is a lot tougher than she looks.

Make Cheese While the Sun Shines (and other gnomic utterances)

As a medievalist and as a disembodied intellect I am addicted to my own pseudo-sagacity.

Why "pseudo," you ask?

Because if you have known me long enough, you will already have experienced one of my little false gems of wisdom. They're what the Anglo-Saxons called maxims, though mine only sound learned. Example: after a sigh of weariness that something is taking so long, I will sometimes say to the sigher: "Patience is its own reward." Of course, patience is NOT its own reward (patience is a virtue, and virtue may be its own reward, but we're not talking algebra here) ... so whenever someone nods serenely at the seeming wisdom I've just imparted, I then say "You idiot! Patience may help you to get through long periods of emptiness, but it isn't going to reward you."

It's funny how if you pronounce almost anything in a grave tone, it will be taken as if it had Deep Import. Especially if you are a medievalist -- because, hey, we know arcane things.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

If you happen to be in Washington DC on Oct. 27 ...

You are most welcome to join the English Department of the George Washington University at our "Futures of the Field: Medieval Studies" Symposium.

The discussion with Bruce Holsinger (University of Virginia), Kellie Robertson (University of Pittsburgh) and Kofi Omoniyi Sylvanus Campbell (Wilfrid Laurier University) will take place on Friday October 27 at 2 PM. Refreshments served.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Aliens cause insomnia!

See that book image? Look closely at the green-skinned alien in the upper corner. Frightening little guy, isn't he?

I found this book at the local supermarket and bought it for Kid #1. Stonehenge, the Loch Ness monster, UFOs: it was screaming out his name. He read most of the volume, then returned it to me with a tremble. He declared that I never should have purchased the thing because the alien on its cover is so so so creepy.

He awakened me at 3:28 this morning, right after the nightmare that this image provoked had awakened him, to ensure I got his point.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Hallucinogenic Mushrooms and Vampire Historians: BABEL Goes to Oxford [Mississippi, That Is]

Figure 1. The Humanistic Subject Under the Thrall of History-as-Vampire

The BABEL Working Group will be in Oxford, MS this week for the annual meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association, where we are going to present our third session in our ongoing roundtable series, "Premodern to Modern Humanisms." We are trying something a little different this time around, presenting comments and responses Thursday afternoon and then reconvening Saturday afternoon for a "rehash" [a rehash that will have benefited, we hope, from several late-night bull sessions over bourbon and ribs, or, um, barbecued tofu]. The panel will feature the following speakers: Michael Harper [20th-century American literature], Deirdre Jou [N.I.H./Infectious Diseases], Betsy McCormick [Middle English literature], Teresa Reed [Middle English literature/women's studies], and Valerie Vogrin [fiction writer]. Myra Seaman [Middle English literature] and Nelljean Rice [poet/women's studies] are the respondents. The idea, as always, is to bring together medievalists with scholars working in other humanistic disciplines, and also with social scientists and scientists, to think about and discuss together the fate or future of "being human," "humanism," and the humanities in the supposed posthuman, post-everything future.

Since I will likely not be able to post much over the next five to sxi days, I thought I would leave everyone with some "preview" excerpts from the BABEL session, and when I return, I hope I will have something interesting to report further. [The full texts of all of these remarks will be available after the conference on BABEL's website.]

1. from Betsy McCormick, "The Love Below, or, The Logic of a Humanist Practice [with apologies to OutKast]
. . . . This past week Stanley Katz, president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies, wrote an editorial for the Chronicle entitled “What has Happened to the Professoriate?” Katz observes, “I have become convinced that our most profound problems have to do with our unwillingness to inquire into our own situation.” I agree that any critical inquiry must also be one of self-inquiry. Toril Moi has quite astutely observed of feminism that “A truly critical … account of feminism, then, would be one which also reflects on the social conditions of possibility of feminist discourse. Or in other words: feminism as critique must also be a critique of feminism” (“Appropriating Bourdieu”). But perhaps we can reverse this process as we approach a consideration of humanism/s: a critique of humanism might also produce a humanism as critique – a critique , I would suggest, that is more in the pursuit of inquiry than criticism.

. . . . In the Middle Ages, one of the roles of what we now call the humanities was invention: invention of knowledge, of ethics, of self. Mary Carruthers outlines how memory, one of the fundamentals of rhetoric, was used to “invent” the self’s knowledge. In his "The Ethical Poetic of the Later Middles Ages," Judson Allen notes that in the medieval conception of poetry, there is no real category for literature; rather poetry and literature are categorized under the rubric “ethics.” He explains that “to define ethics in medieval terms is to define poetry, and to define poetry is to define ethics, because medieval ethics was so much under the influence of a literary paideia as to be enacted poetry and poetry was so practically received as to be quite directly the extended examples for real behaviour.” That is literature is an action, a practice of ethical reality.

In "The Practice of Everyday Life," Michel de Certeau argues against the current association of reading with passivity, noting that the process of reading meaning is little understood or studied. Yet isn’t that what humanities are: the reading of meaning, of life? And if these are so little understood, how do we make them understandable? It seems we have to begin by better understanding our own role in humanistic practice. . . . Donna Haraway has said of feminism, that “feminist inquiry is about understanding how things work, who is in the action, what might be possible, and how worldly actors might somehow be accountable to and love each other less violently” (“Companion Species Manifesto” – thanks JJC). A sentiment which should be applied to all humanisms – in other words, we need to move past our own praxis of dialectic to show a culture mired in dichotomies how to move beyond to the love below.
2. from Valerie Vogrin, "Breaking Up with Realism"
In June, I read an article in The Wall Street Journal reporting on a study conducted by Johns Hopkins researchers on psilocybin—among the first of its kind in 40 years. Over two-thirds of the participants administered psilocybin—97% were college grads, 56 had advanced degrees—reported the effects as being among the five most meaningful experiences in their lives, effects that included lasting increases in their sense of well-being and satisfaction. In the journal Psychopharmacology, prominent neuroscientists heralded the study and called for further research directed toward potential therapeutic uses as well as “a science of spiritual experience.”

A bit more web research led to my discovery of several well-funded international non-profit organizations dedicated to the support of psychopharmacology research and the University of Hawaii’s Psychoative Biotechnology Project. It lead me to the wacky, erudite world of the late Terence McKenna, social critic and outspoken proponent of psychedelics who believed, “reestablishing channels of direct communication with the planetary Other, the mind behind nature, through the use of hallucinogenic plants is the best hope for dissolving the steep walls of cultural inflexibility that appear to be channeling us toward true ruin.”

This flurry of research left me flabbergasted, as though a troop of flying monkeys had just swung by my second-story office window, for here were respected scientists and other academics taking very seriously something I had definitively relegated to an intellectual category akin to Childish Things. When had I become so closed-minded, so rigid? (I’d ignored the role of psychedelic drug use in at least five millennia of spiritual practice; I’d disregarded my own profound, if distant, personal experiments.) Since when were the National Institute for Drug Abuse and the FDA more forward thinking than I? Why would I so thoroughly discount something one of the study’s reviewers thinks “may hold the key to understanding the very nature of consciousness, self-awareness, the ability to introspect, and the properties of mind that set us apart from other species”? Doesn’t this speak to the heart of what I believe is the enterprise of the fiction writer—to explore, expansively and insistently, the question of what it means to be a human in this world?
3. from Teresa Reed, [no title yet]
. . . in [her novel] "The Historian," [Elizabeth] Kostova creates an intertextual labyrinth, spanning past, present, and future and including archival research, anxiety over conference presentations, and “report[s] of a strange plague, sometimes an outbreak of vampirism,” to which the narrator is not immune. Dracula, himself, becomes the symbol for the author’s anxiety about this intertextuality, a condition that affects not only the telling of her narrative but her relationship to the past she attempts to create and recount. Dracula--a dark, brooding, handsome, seductive, all-powerful, there-but-not-really-there figure-- becomes, too, I think an apt symbol for the humanities’ relationship to the past as we find our own ways to deal with what R. Allen Shoaf has called “the crisis of difference,” our anxiety about comprehending or apprehending the past or, alternately, being taken by it.

The narrator is, in effect, only a framing device and tells the story through layers of various other texts including letters, journal entries, archival documents, personal interviews, and flashbacks. The narrator exists for us, as any narrator does, as words on a page, as seeming authority over the text. Even so, in the course of this novel textual authority becomes repeatedly suspect as the texts within texts, within texts pile up. Characters are known only through other characters’ interpretations of them, and when Dracula, himself, is presented as the quintessential historian, readers must pause to see the picture of postmodernity and the post-human that is presented to them. In other words, while the novel valorizes the wit and fortitude of its humanities scholars (they are heroes because of--not in spite of--their ability to read and interpret texts and apply their interpretations to the world in which they live), the novel’s structure and certain narrative events make it particularly rich in boundary transgressions and undo the dream of unified happy endings.

As I have stated already, one way that "The Historian" undoes itself is its very structure. The narrative voice opens and closes the work, but in between these bookends are nested many different other narrative voices. For instance, the narrator’s father tells his story--both verbally and via letters--and the story of his wife/the narrator’s mother, his dissertation advisor, and the advisor’s long-lost love interest. Nested inside his stories are letters (often set in italics just to remind us of the different narrative frame) and flashbacks told from yet another narrative point of view. At one point, I counted that the novel had gone “four deep”; i.e. there were two narrative levels between the narrator and the character whose words and actions were being described. On the narrative level, in addition to finding and killing Dracula, the narrator, through her good humanities-type research, is also able to better understand the man her father is by understanding his past and running to catch him in their present--all kinds of happy endings. Indeed, the novel begins, in a faux “Note to the Reader,” by explaining that it is the story of “how [all the characters] found [themselves] on one of the darkest pathways into history,” a dream of completion and full self knowledge. The nested aspect of the structural level, however, produces a text in which the narrator reinterprets her own life based on what she reads. The narrator similarly acknowledges the instability of her identity in the “Note to the Reader,” which continues, “As a historian, I have learned that, in fact, not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it. And it is not only reaching back that endangers us; sometimes history itself reaches inexorably forward for us with its shadowy claw.”

This is the nightmare version of history’s thrall over us, how texts can affect us, “endanger” us. This text is one in which, in Donna Haraway’s words, the “transcendent authorization of interpretation is lost.” And no doubt, for some, that is a truly frightening prospect. Even Chaucer expressed authorial anxiety over how his words would be taken and how past texts were reaching out to infect his text. At the beginning of Book Two of "Troilus and Criseyde," for instance, in a famous passage, the narrator talks about the intertextuality of his story, saying,

Me needeth here noon other art to use,
Forwhy to every lovere I me excuse
That of no sentement I this endite,
But out of Latin in my tonge it write.

Wherefore I nil have neither thank ne blame
Of al this werk, but praye you mekely,
Disblameth me if any word be lame,
For as myn auctour saide so saye I;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Ye knewe eek that in forme of speeche is chaunge
Within a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden pris now wonder nice and straunge
Us thenketh hem, and yit they spake hem so,
And spedde as wel in love as men now do;
Eek for to winnen love in sondry ages
In sondry landes sondry ben usages. (Book 2.Lines 11- 18 & 22-28)

Chaucer’s narrator both shirks and accepts responsibility for the story, both acknowledges his text’s debt to the past and plays with its presence, its words, which must be ever-changing. This is, I argue, not the nightmare version of intertextuality but a pre-modern acceptance or, indeed, embrace of it. In contrast, "The Historian" acknowledges and even uses intertextuality but conceives of it as the dark monster in the corner--ever there, ever threatening. The narrator’s father says, “It is a fact that we historians are interested in what is partly a reflection of ourselves, perhaps a part of ourselves we would rather not examine except through the medium of scholarship,” illustrating his conflicted approach towards the past and his practice of the humanities.
Nelljean Rice, one of our respondents, and also BABEL's official poet-jester, promises the following in her remarks: uroboros, ophiology, autophagy, autopoesis, AI, Body Integrity Identity Disorder, TS Eliot's "East Coker," and the Bible. Cheers!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is? Does Anyone Really Know Foucault? Does Anyone Really Know The Body?

Eric Paras's provocative new book Foucault 2.0: Beyond Power and Knowledge is the subject of Richard Wolin's recent Chronicle essay, "Foucault the Neohumanist." In his book, Paras argues, with evidence mainly culled from Foucault's late College de France lectures, that "in his later years Foucault had clearly become disenchanted with the research program he had honed during the mid-1970s in Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality. The treatment of 'power' in these works proved too suffocating and monolithic." Further, again in his later years, Foucault "turned to a more positive concept of subjectivity, centered on the 'art of living' in ancient Greece and Rome. Foucault had come to believe that such pre-Christian, pagan approaches to the idea of self-cultivation represented a valuable heuristic — a means to overcome the deficiencies of modern conceptions of the self. Second, the term 'power/knowledge' itself is entirely absent from his later lectures and texts — a telling indication of how radically dissatisfied Foucault had become with the limitations of his earlier approach." Finally, and perhaps most importantly, according to Paras, is how much Foucault, at the end of his career, reevaluated the idea of subjectvity: "During the 1960s, as a card-carrying structuralist, Foucault, along with Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Louis Althusser, had celebrated the 'death of the author' as a pendant to the fashionable postmodernist thesis concerning the 'death of man.' But as Paras remarks, if we know a great deal about Foucault's challenge to the hegemony of 'man,' we are comparatively ignorant of the process by which he abandoned his hard structuralist position and later embraced the ideas that he had labored to undermine: liberty, individualism, 'human rights,' and even the thinking subject."

According to Paras, Foucault became fascinated with an "aesthetics of existence," and he wrote, "The idea of the bios [life] as material for an aesthetic piece of art is something that fascinates me." According to Wolin, "Under the sign of aesthetic self-realization, Foucault rehabilitates and vindicates the rights of subjectivity. As Foucault avows, his new normative ideal is 'the formation and development of a practice of Self, the objective of which is the constitution of oneself as the laborer of the beauty of one's own life'." I read Wolin's review a couple of weeks ago, and I've been thinking about it a lot in relation to a recent post of JJC's, "King Alfred's Hemmorrhoids," and our brief exchange there over queer studies [which has been heavily influenced, I think everyone would agree, by the thought of Foucault, especially in his History of Sexuality], bodies-becoming, corporeal hybridity, and embodied and disembodied subjectivities. While Jeffrey agrees with me that we can never really escape the material fact of our embodiment [we can not really become other bodies], he also argues that
humans have always relied on "exterior" devices to assist in our embodiment. Sometimes those devices are other beings. Sometimes they are tools. Always they are pieces of the world without which we would not be human at all (we'd be bereft, self-sustaining, monads, I guess). The moment you form an alliance with a keyboard to disseminate your voice across distance and to touch other bodies (yes, bodies as well as subjectivities: thought is embodied, the anger or pleasure or intelelctual stimulation we feel in reaction to a comment on a blog is embodied), you have already become hybrid: a part of you, which is still of you, has left and is circulating elsewhere. It may come back, and its return is going to affect your embodied subjectivity.
Further, Jeffrey shares the thoughts of his colleague Gail Weiss, who, in her book Body Images: Embodiment as Intersubjectivity, argues that "we are always already 'out of our bodies': we can't gain a coherent body image without identifications and disidentifications that in fact work to spread our embodiment into interstices, blurring boundaries rather than respecting them. . . . So to the question of 'whether a body can really ever be anything other than itself, I would answer: it never was itself."

I would not disagree with anything Jeffrey writes above, except for the last idea that, in essense, the body never was itself. Part of the problem, for me, in trying to parse out all of these ideas--both Jeffrey's thinking in Medieval Identity Machines and queer theorizing on the body and sexualities more generally, as well as my current reading in "sociology of the body" studies [Bryan S. Turner, Chris Shilling, Mike Hepworth, Mike Featherstone, Sarah Coakley, Thomas J. Csordas, Elizabeth Grosz, and Foucault, among others]--is that I find myself confronting a kind of theoretical impasse between the body as discourse and the body as itself, and all the tangled relations between the two. I think one of the ways in which Foucault's earlier work--especially Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality--has perhaps led us down a wrong path, is in its emphasis on bodies [and hence, subjectivity] being entirely discursive. Here is what Chris Shilling writes about that, in his book The Body and Social Theory (SAGE, 2003):
Foucault's epistemological view of the body means that it disappears as a material or biological phenomenon. The biological, physical or material body can never be grasped by the Foucauldian approach as its existence is permanently deferred behind the grids of meaning imposed by discourse. . . . The body is present as a topic of discussion, but is absent as a focus of investigation. . . . One manifestation of this is Foucault's view of the mind/body relationship. Once the body is contained within modern disciplinary systems, it is the mind which takes over as the location for discursive power. Consequently, the body tends to be reduced to an inert mass which is controlled by discourses centered on the mind. However, this mind itself is disembodied; we get no sense of the mind's location within an active human body.
To put it bluntly, the bodies that appear in Foucault's work do not enjoy a prolonged visibility as corporeal entities. Bodies are produced, but their own powers of production, where they have any, are limited to those invested in them by discourse. As such, the body is dissolved as a causal phenomenon into the determining power of discourse, and it becomes extremely difficult to conceive of the body as a material component social action. Furthermore, Foucault is insufficiently concerned with lived experience. As [Bryan] Turner notes, despite all his references to pleasure and desire, Foucault ignores the phenomenology of embodiment. (pp. 70-71)
This is not to say, of course, we want to return to a discourse of the naturalized body--of course not. But it strikes me that a lot of those hybrid corporalities--medieval and modern--that JJC illustrates so beautifully [and with deep empathy] in MIM, are really the products of art, and also, of JJC's own discourse. They are more fully realized in their textual expression than they are, or were, perhaps, in life. Yes, we depend on external devices, including other persons, to fully actualize our identities [and even our embodied "selves"], but much of the physical effects of all of this, I would argue, are mainly felt [experienced] within our own, discretely-contoured chemical circuits, and it is only the beautiful fiction of our lives, if we want to believe it, that we actually "connect" with others. But this is, in my mind, a necessary fiction. We do not really want to be alone in our bodies. This is not to say that we cannot touch and be touched by others, or that we cannot construct elaborate schemes and artifices--mechanical, textual, biological, and otherwise--whereby we blend our bodies into other living entities, or that if someone cuts off my arm, my body hasn't been irrevocably altered by an external action [although my mind may consider that arm to still be there and produce phantom pain as a result--which should tell us something about just how powerful the body--i.e., the mind--actually is, especially against external forces seeking to alter that body's self-integrity].

I'm not sure, ultimately, where I am headed with all of this in my own work [it will come into play, at some level, in my article on eros and The Seven Sleepers and in my new book project, We Must Speak What We Feel], except that I think those of us working in literary studies might need to work a bit harder to account for "the body" when we write about identity and subjectivity, and realize that, while, yes, "the body" is a historical entity that has been produced in discourse [and also in medical practice] over time, that "the body" is, at the same time, something that exists prior to discourse, and even in spite of it. Obviously, a body is always social, and both shapes and is shaped by its environment. Here is how Chris Shilling sees the current state of affairs in body studies:
. . . . the physical body is at once a source of self-identity (involving experiences, feelings, and perceptions), and a location for the effects of society (group norms permeate the individual's sense of self and their evaluation of this sense of self). . . . the body also constitutes a medium whereby people can be attached to or repelled from their social milieu. (p. 206)

Of course, a huge problem in all this, is our dualistic way of thinking about everything--body versus mind, self versus society, etc.--which is very difficult to overcome, even as science tells us, over and over again: there is NO body and mind. Only body. But how can we account for this, except through the very language that keeps us, again and again, from being only bodies?

Friday, October 06, 2006

What do you know?

The title's a quote taken from a grouchy me, last Tuesday. At a crowded birthday dinner for a friend, someone asked what I did.

"I'm a medievalist."
"Isn't that kind of narrow?"

I can't say I fielded the question as well as I would have liked. I started with the above ("what do you know?"), followed it up with a sputtering "1,000 years of stuff. 1,000 years!" and when that did nothing to conjure away my interlocutor's blank stare, "and I work in three languages. It's hardly...narrow."

With that, the spell was broken. All it took was the languages, although I guess I should have added, in all honesty, that no one speaks any of them anymore.

Normally, when I say I'm a medievalist, I get one of two responses: 1) they ask if I belong to the SCA or engage in SCA-related program activities; 2) they talk about the Crusades, about which I know next to nothing: cannibalism, sack of Constantinople, and Orlando Bloom, and then I'm tapped. I'm not complaining, mind you. It's nice, comforting even, to see people try to make a connection. It's just that, well, I'd like to hear something else: but not what I heard on Tuesday.

This being Friday, it's a good time to engage in a bit of frivolity. JJC threw duct tape at us; Eileen, naughty wallets; and me, I'm asking for your stories. What's happened when you tell people what you do? I'm not directing this question solely at medievalists.

Sat. Morning Update
I decided to revisit the subject from a slightly different direction. Here you go:

I suppose the reactions of non-medievalists and, especially, non-academics are predictable. To a degree, the reactions, at least with my family or other people from back home, are due to class. Because I'm likely the only medievalist they're ever going to meet, I might as well have declared myself a Martian. With these people, I get either confusion ('you can get paid for that?' or 'no, that's not what I asked. What's your job'?), attempts to engage the Other (who is, astonishingly enough for my family, me) that are, nakedly, only attempts at incorporation or assimilation ('what you need to do is go into business and use your medieval knowledge to get rich: you'd know all this stuff that no one else did, so you'd have that advantage'), or, more rarely, I get hostility ('know-nothing academics'), either because they sense, I hope not justly, contempt for their class on my part--after all, I'm not one of them anymore--or, because they can't find a place for what I do and what I am in their world, there's an angry attempt to set things right through mockery.

So I'm pleased as punch when people try to make some connection on the basis of my interests. That's, dare I say, an ethical moment: paging EJ and Lévinas....

Generally I've found the best thing to do is to follow Liza's example (in the comments) by telling them something gross or weird about what I study. I find the animal trials work well for that. In other words, I find some moment in the Middle Ages that's as Other to me as the Middle Ages, in toto, are to them. I approach my own field of study and, to a large degree, myself with the bemused or off-kilter fascination of the non-expert. Because I think I have a handle on the opening of the General Prologue and its significance (as inhuman sexuality, as compulsory heterosexuality, as whatever), when someone finds out I'm a medievalist and quotes it to me, I'm likely to be frustrated by the chasm between what I (think I) know and what they don't know, or refuse to know, or cannot know. Bridging that chasm, if it's indeed there, would take a semester or, say, 85 minutes before I set everyone aright, before I found, once again, satisfaction or free access to the buffet table or whatever it is I want. But with the animal trials--dressing a pig up as a person and hanging it for murder--no theory, pace Jody Enders, will ever put that right. The trials are just too strange, for me, the supposed expert now estranged from his expertise, and for my interlocutors, of course. I might have had to humiliate my expertise to get their interest, but at least they might leave knowing how unassimilable my own field of study is to anyone's experience and hence how much pleasure it promises. It's possible to do this with Chaucer but it's harder to do it, quickly, for whatever reason.

Now, to evade the risk of this turning into one of those chronic Chronicle first-person pieces, I'll cede the floor to Zizek:

On the rare occasions when, owing to various kinds of social obligations, I cannot avoid meeting my relatives who have nothing to do with Lacanian theory (or with theory in general), sooner or later the conversation always takes the same unpleasant turn: with barely concealed hostility and envy lurking beneath a polite surface, they ask me how much I earn by my writing and publishing abroad, and giving lectures around the world. Surprisingly, whichever answer I give sounds wrong to them: if I admit that I earn what, in their eyes, is a considerable sum of money, they consider it unjust that I earn so much for my empty philosophizing, while they, who are doing 'real work,' have to sweat for a much lesser reward; if I tell them a small sum, they assert, with deep satisfaction, that even this is too much--who needs my kind of philosophizing in these times of social crisis? Why should we spend taxpayers' money on it? The underlying premise of their reasoning is that, to put it bluntly, whatever I earn, I earn too much--why? It is not only that they consider my kind of work useless: what one can discern beneath this official, public reproach is the envy of enjoyment. That is to say, it soon becomes obvious what really bothers them: the notion that I actually enjoy my work. They possess a vague intuition of how I find jouissance in what I do; which is why, in their eyes, money is never a proper equivalent for my work. No wonder, then, that what I earn always oscillates between the two extremes of 'too little' and 'too much': such an oscillation is an unmistakable sign that we are dealing with jouissance. (Plague of Fantasies, 53-54)